Role models: who is yours?

An article about role models on the Guardian website set me thinking this week. I’ve written at length about my feelings on feminism and choice, on the Disney Princess vibe, and generally on the topic of women in society. I’ve complained about the celebrity obsession (by definition, a celebrity should be someone celebrated for their achievements – which should not included marrying a footballer, brain-addling via cocaine or drunk driving…) at length, although largely, with a focus on unhealthy body image rather than other areas of feminine empowerment. I’ve come at the role model question almost exclusively from a beauty-related self-esteem angle.

I’ve never really considered that young girls today might see the Amy Winehouse and Kerry Katonas of this world as role models. I’ve never thought about the inhabitants of the Big Brother house as anything but wannabes that the world either watches and shudders at, or switches channels to avoid. And I’ve never thought of  Cheryl Cole fans as anything other than impressed by her role as a successful and hard-working musician (let’s not pick that to pieces just now, eh?) and presenter – it had not occured to me that her role-model status related in anyway to her imbecile of a philandering footballer ex!

But then, when I think about my own role models, I realise that very few of them are modern women. Yes, I admire Christina Henrdicks for her relationship with her body, and yes, I think Kate Winslet is a rather marvellous example of how to do Hollywood without over-exposing every element of your private life to the paparazzi… but it really ends there, for “celebrities” at least. While I think both of these women are excellent role models in their own rights, I’m not sure they’re MY role models, as beyond their physical entities, I can’t relate to their lifestyles.

In fact, my personal role models have always been fictional characters whose personalities and strength of character I have admired. As a girl, it was Sara Crew (A Little Princess), whose acceptance and understanding in the face of adversity were inspiring to me. Similarly, Lucy Pevensie (The Chronices of Narnia) and Maria Merryweather (The Little White Horse) demonstrated courage and sacrifice beyond my imagination. Later – and to this day – the wit and vivacity of Lizzy Bennett combined with the serenity and gentle nature of her sister Jane, and the gracious dignity of Elinor Dashwood have all provided characters on which I have modelled my own behaviour in difficult circumstances. I do not pretend to reach anything like their levels of propriety, but I’ll admit to having addressed a situation with “What would Lizzy do?” on more than one occasion…

I suppose it comes down to different role models for different roles. I will confess to admiring Cath Kidston for making a successful business out of her love for kitsch. I admire various bloggers – Amber, Gemma, Sian, Cate – who have made their interests into their career and forged the path for we mere wannabes online. And all those craftspeople on Etsy who’ve followed their hearts to mint pennies out of passion (I’m looking at YOU Amy!)… Really I’m beyond impressed by anyone who has slogged hard and long in order to make their creative talents pay the bills!

I think we all need role models, something to aspire to, someone to help mould our behaviour and choices. And perhaps, if the celebrity pool is so shallow, we should be casting a wider net? Should we be looking back, as we would have in the past, to our teachers and female relatives, for inspiration? And what of our friends? There are few women in my own inner circle who haven’t faced adversity and come out the stronger for it, and the more I talk to those around me, the more I realise that the every day struggles every woman faces require strength of character and courage equal to any heroine I have ever read about. Look around you next time you’re in the office, at the supermarket, on the bus, and consider: the likelihood is that the polite smiles and poker faces are hiding pain, loss, heartache and fear.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we set too much score by celebrities as role models when the real heroines of the piece are the ones we see down the pub on a Friday night.


5 thoughts on “Role models: who is yours?

  1. I thought it was an interesting article too. Good post, Caroline. What chimed with me was the girl quoted as saying Edith Wharton and her heroines were her role models! I’m with you and her in that a lot of mine were/are also fictional or the creators of strong characters – my mother once said that what makes Little Women such a good book is that you read it and want to be Jo rather than any of the others. It also really annoyed me when I was little how many heroines in books were blonde (I’m a brunette)! I don’t know how many girls really do take Cheryl Cole as a role model, but I think the article was right in terms of highlighting just how few other women get given space by the media. Though, again, for most of us, according to the article, our role models are nearer home, like our mothers.

  2. I find it much easier to think of characters from novels as role models too. I think it’s because we know so little about celebrities other than what their publicists are feeding us, or what the misleading headlines say about them. Actually, a good example of this is Christina Hendricks her good self. I admire her beauty and her talent, and it’s clear that some media outlets are keen to endorse her as a ‘role model’ or spokesperson. On the cover of Red Magazine recently they featured her with the headline ‘Christina Hendricks on why her body is not public property’ and I thought ‘good stuff! what a positive comment she is making!’ but the substance of the article had nothing along those lines. I’m not saying that she doesn’t feel that way, but I was being encouraged to view her as a role model based on words someone else was putting in her mouth.

    No, like you, the people I have taken direction from are the women in my own lives and certain fictional women too! Anne Shirley, for her impulsiveness, and sense of beauty, and spirituality and kindess has always been a role model of mine, ever since I read Anne of Green Gables at the age of 8. My mother, for her grace and dignity, her hard work and her amazing sense of humour. I wish I could be like her, and I hope that I am. And the amazing women I’m friends with, both in real life and in the little corner of the internet I frequent. For example, I think you’re pretty darn inspirational yourself!

  3. For me it has to be women who have succeeded in what are traditionally male dominated arenas, I don’t know why that is, perhaps because my own profession is a traditionally male one. Again, fictional character, Peggy Olsen. Female members of the armed forces, and the other week there was an article about the youngest qualifying lorry driver in England. She was an 18 year old girl. These sorts of women are formidable, they want what men have but they want for themselves, not for it to be given to them by a man, they are equals. Sorry, I went on a bit there but you get the picture.

  4. I read this post a while ago and have been meaning to leave a comment but I didn’t really know what to say.

    I very much agree with your comments about good role models coming from fiction and real life (mine often have, and IRL particularly centre my primary school teachers) but unlike you, I’m not entirely sure that I have any female role models in my life. I’ve met various women who have done things I’ve respected but that’s not quite the same thing.

    I’m not sure why, but that makes me feel a little sad.

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